After a couple of days sightseeing in York, one of England’s most spectacular cities, I want to report back on the Liberal Democrats’ conference held there over the weekend. It ended with the traditional rallying cry from the party leader Tim Farron. He spelled out a bold strategy for the party: to replace Labour as the principal opposition, and then to take on the Conservatives for government. Well that’s not the first time I’ve heard such ideas from a Lib Dem leader’s speech – and the only result has been that the party’s wings melted like those of Icarus when it got too close to the heat of power. Could this time be different?
The Lib Dems are particularly taken by the result of the recent General Election in the Netherlands, and their hopes rest on similar trends being repeated in Britain. Now if your knowledge of the Dutch election was based reporting by the BBC News, and other mainstream news outlets, you might be a little surprised. The BBC pitched the contest as between the party of the Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, the VVD, and the populist-right PVV, a one-man vehicle for its leader Geert Wilders, and his extreme views against immigration, the EU and Islam. The BBC hunted out Dutch working class voters for its vox pops, giving us the impression of a surge of support, in the manner of that that swept Donald Trump to power in the USA. The VVD meanwhile, though nominally a liberal party, seemed beholden to the PVV agenda, and anxious to sound tough on immigration, engineering a spat with the Turkish government to prove their point. When the VVD ended up with 33 seats, in the highly proportional Dutch electoral system, to the PVV’s 20, the BBC proclaimed the VVD as the winner, and quickly moved on.
But there a 150 seats in the Netherlands parliament, so the VVD and the PVV covered barely a third between them. Elsewhere something much more interesting was happening, which puts the whole picture in a different perspective. There were in fact two main losers in the election: the VVD, which lost 8 seats, though remained the largest party, and, most spectacularly, the Labour Party (the PvdA), which was reduced from 38 seats to just 9. The PVV advanced by 5 seats, but there were bigger winners. D66, the liberal left party most similar in outlook to the British Lib Dems, advanced 7 seats to 19; the Christian Democrats (the CDA), a party not unlike Britain’s Conservatives as they are being refashioned by Theresa May, also took 19 seats, gaining 6; and the biggest winner was the GreenLeft, which advanced 10 seats to 14.
What to make of this? Well it is fair to suggest that Mr Wilders and his PVV has set the political agenda. The CDA did well by coopting some of its ideas, and the VVD managed to hang on with similar tactics. But the two parties that where most vocal in promoting the opposite agenda, of voicing a sense of Dutch identity based on tolerance and being part of Europe, picked up 17 seats and have real momentum. The traditional Labour party was unable to hold together its coalition and collapsed.
And so the implications for British politics are clear. Mrs May’s strategy for the Conservatives, with a lurch to right on identity and social issues, and to the left on economic ones, looks sound enough. The polls show it has a commanding lead, crushing the populist Ukip, and even doing respectably in Scotland. Labour, meanwhile, are floundering – unable to find a formula that holds together its coalition of traditional working class, new working class (including ethnic minority workers) and liberal public sector workers. Its problems are compounded by spectacularly weak leadership, and a sense of political entitlement amongst its membership that makes them focus inwardly, rather than develop an effective political presence in the country at large. And the success of D66 and the GreenLeft shows the possibilities for the Lib Dems, by wearing its liberal and pro-European heart on its sleeve. There should be an opportunity for Britain’s Greens too, but they seem to have lost critical mass. Their move to being a party of the socialist left before the 2015 general election, including the adoption of Universal Income, was probably a major strategic error – and anyway the party seems allergic to clear leadership.
And so the Lib Dems at York went big for being pro-European, promoting a second referendum with a way back into the EU – and promoting the rights of EU citizens living in Britain. Political realists may dismiss this as being silly, but it lights fires. The populist surge, promoted by a hateful press, and supporting a hard Brexit, is generating a backlash, and the Lib Dems mean to exploit it.
But Mr Farron, and the party at large, are starting to look beyond that. That was evidenced by one fudge and one new idea. The fudge was on nuclear weapons. The party’s liberal principles point to unilateral nuclear disarmament, eloquently argued for by many activists. But members at large sensed danger and adopted a fudged policy that will go nowhere. As David Grace, one of those advocating the unilateralist position, rightly pointed out – the party was not afraid of the Russians so much as of the Daily Mail. While intellectually persuaded of the unilateralist line, I personally lacked the courage to support it. It would put off too many floating voters.
The new idea was put forward by Tim Farron in his speech: an economic commission of independent experts to develop new ideas on economic policy. This follows a similar idea on health and social care. This is a step that the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn started to take and then dropped – no doubt because he feared it would be a hostage to fortune. The time is ripe for new thinking on economic policy, and the Conservative government is heading for some deep trouble, with its over-commitment to austerity and low taxes, not to mention hard Brexit. Tim’s commission cuts across the brief of an internal policy group (on the “21st Century Economy”), which I am planning to contribute to, but this looks like a sound move by him. The party can’t carry a new economic policy by itself.
Tim’s strategy is clear. Develop a core vote based on European identity and a liberal understanding of British values. And then pitch for floating voters, including those that voted for Brexit, based on economics and public services. Could it work? Labour could yet scupper it by dropping Mr Corbyn and going for the right replacement leader. Their German counterparts seem to be having some success with such a strategy. The most convincing alternative leaders are probably David Miliband or Ed Balls – but both are out parliament. Meanwhile the threat of complete collapse remains – the Dutch Labour Party is only the latest in a line of spectacular political failures by traditional socialist parties in Europe. The Lib Dems will still need a lot of luck – but this looks like their best chance.
I do not warm to Tim Farron personally. I am too cynical for his grand rhetoric, and bored of his jokes. But he is proving to be a very capable political strategist – much better than his predecessor. This will be interesting to watch.